From the Hill – Summer 2008
Bush signs genetic nondiscrimination bill
On May 21, President Bush signed a bill that bans health insurers and employers from discriminating against anyone whose genetic information shows a predisposition to illnesses such as cancer or heart disease. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), first introduced in 1995, had been repeatedly derailed by politics during the Republican control of Congress. But that changed with the turnover of power to Democrats, and the bill passed by overwhelming majorities in each chamber.
The law bars health insurers from rejecting coverage or raising premiums for healthy people based on personal or familial genetic predisposition to a particular disease. It pro hibits employers from using genetic information in hiring, firing, pay, or promotion decisions. It also forbids health insurers from requiring a genetic test.
Supporters of the law said that people have been reluctant to take genetic tests that could lead to detection of an illness because of fears that they could lose their jobs or insurance coverage. Longtime GINA booster Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, called its passage “a great gift to all Americans.”
Possible political interference at the EPA investigated
On May 7, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Sector Solutions to Global Warming, Oversight, and Children’s Health Protection held a hearing on the scientific integrity of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) policy decisions.
In her opening remarks, Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) focused on recurring accusations of political interference with scientific findings and reports by Bush administration officials. In particular, the EPA has recently been criticized for setting ground-level ozone limits higher than those recommended by the agency’s science advisory board, and for the firing of regional administrator Mary Gade because of her request for a chemical industry cleanup of a site in Michigan found to be contaminated with dioxin.
The chief witness was George Gray, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development. Gray represented the EPA in lieu of the subcommittee’s requested witness, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, who was unable to attend.
In his testimony, Gray stated that the EPA’s scientists are key contributors to a transparent process of sound decisionmaking that begins with scientific examination of the facts and ends with careful and defensible decisions based on those conclusions. He specifically described the decisions of the administrator as matters of science policy that must consider the conclusions of experts from many disciplines and acknowledge their uncertainties.
Gray’s testimony was met with sharp criticism from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who is leading an inquiry into political interference in science at the EPA. He questioned Gray specifically about a recent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) survey in which 889 scientists at the EPA (out of 1,586 respondents) stated that they had been subject to political interference of at least one kind, as defined in the survey. Gray argued that individual opinions couldn’t provide a basis on which to judge the actions of the agency as a whole, but that such a number is still unacceptable. Nonetheless, he said that the agency’s scientific work is transparent and again defended its peer-review process.
Boxer said that Gray lost credibility when he stated that he believed in the transparency of the EPA’s process despite a Government Accountability Office report citing evidence that interagency comments on EPA regulatory decisions, notably ones from the Department of Defense and Office of Management and Budget, were kept secret.
The Senate hearing coincided with “Whistleblower Week,” a series of events organized by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project (GAP) to evaluate scientific freedom within the government and the effects of political interference on the conduct of science. On May 12, the GAP and the UCS co-hosted a panel that included two whistleblowers from the federal government who left their positions because of alleged political interference with their work, and a UCS scientist who is tracking such activity.
David Ross, a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist, described a pattern of political interference in his work that culminated in his resignation after the approval of the antibiotic drug Ketek. The agency approved the drug despite his findings that it could cause dangerous side effects and his recommendation that it be kept off the market. Ross said his supervisors told him to “soften” the wording in his reports on Ketek, and they forbade him to publicly disclose employee findings.
Other FDA scientists have also complained about political interference in recent years. In a 2006 UCS survey, nearly one-fifth of 997 surveyed scientists reported experiencing interference, meaning specifically that they had “been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document.” Similar findings have surfaced in surveys of other agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the EPA.
Bill introduced to close FACA “loopholes”
Two House members have introduced legislation aimed at closing “loopholes” in the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The bill was introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-MO), chairman of the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives.
At an April hearing, Clay said that “some appointments to scientific and technical advisory committees have generated some controversy due to the perception that appointments were made based on ideology rather than expertise or were weighted to favor one group of stakeholders over another.” In his opening statement, he specifically cited “Vice President Dick Cheney’s infamous Energy Task Force that was stacked with industry executives.”
Testifying at the hearing, Sidney Shapiro, associate dean for research and development at the Wake Forest School of Law, cited several loopholes in FACA, which he argued allow the work of advisory committees to be completed in settings not subject to FACA regulations. He mentioned a “contractor loophole,” which allows agencies to hire private companies to organize advisory committees that are not subject to the FACA regulations; a “subcommittee loophole,” which allows agencies to divert the substantive committee work to subcommittees not subject to the regulations; and a “non-voting participant loophole,” which allows non–committee members to be involved in the work of the committee as long as they do not vote. FACA requires that members of federal advisory committees be designated as “special government employees” and thus be subject to official conflict of interest guidelines. Subcommittee members at the hearing expressed concerns about the last loophole, arguing that nonvoting members are able to strongly influence the work of committees without being subject to FACA regulations.
Climate impact on oceans examined
On April 29, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing on the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans, a relatively new topic of exploration for the nation’s policymakers. The four scientific experts testifying at the hearing provided varying perspectives on the oceans’ vulnerability to the mechanisms of climate change, but all were unanimous that the policies that affect the oceans urgently need to change.
The witnesses said they were alarmed by the warming of the oceans worldwide, which contributes to sea-level rise and reduces the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide because the gas is less soluble in warmer water. In addition, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have led to a buildup of carbonic acid in seawater. These higher acidity levels negatively affect nearly all sea life, the scientists said.
Joan Kleypas of the National Center for Atmospheric Research discussed the “irreparable damage” to the world’s coral reefs caused by warming seas, as did Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University, who also said that the accelerating pace of change in the oceans is contributing to numerous cases of ecosystem stress, including the development of “dead zones”—oxygen-deprived areas that can’t sustain marine life.
Committee Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA) asked the witnesses how the problem could be best approached and its urgency conveyed to the public. The scientists said that policy solutions should include efforts to educate the public on how oceans are affected by climate change, further funding for oceanic research, more regulation of fishing practices, better control of pollution from land, and protection of coastal habitats.
Vikki Spruill of the Ocean Conservancy discussed three pieces of legislation in various stages of development that could benefit the study and protection of the oceans. They include the Oceans Conservation, Education, and National Marine Strategy for the 21st Century Act (H.R. 21), which would create a National Oceans Advisor and establish a new method of oceanic ecosystem management in U.S. coastal waters. The others are the National Marine Sanctuary Act and the Coral Reef Conservation Act, both of which were passed in 2000.
“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/spp) in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.